Columns » Max Brantley

Reality bites

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I supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.

Bygones are bygone. But I can't help recalling that part of the reason was my skepticism about the dreamy  belief that Barack Obama represented a path to a new post-partisan, post-racial, post-political government.

Partisanship, corporate self-interest and rigid ideology seemed too entrenched to me to yield to his appealing rhetoric. Political hardball — though a turnoff to about half of Democratic primary voters — was not a negative to me.

We're now five months into the Obama presidency. What do we see? First, that campaign promises often must yield to political realities. Second, that the entrenched opposing interests don't intend to go quietly. If anything, the change Obama embodies has moved some of them to new levels of hysteria.

A defining issue of the Obama presidency is underway. That is the question of whether the U.S. will join other Western democracies and guarantee health care coverage for all its citizens. I always thought Obama was off on the wrong foot with his calculation that any plan must include a compromise to fully protect private health insurance companies' profits. Compromise doesn't appear in their dictionaries. Or their claim payment schedules.

I've been disappointed, too, that Obama's powerful words about the way the U.S. conducts wars and treats prisoners hasn't been matched by equivalent action. The same for U.S. spying on American citizens and release of information about our international misconduct. Praise from Dick Cheney isn't reason to cheer.

Most disappointing, I think, has been Obama's failure to move forward on a couple of issues that should be easy. Sixteen years after Bill Clinton's opening gaffe and a sea change in public sentiment later, Obama still hasn't acted on his belief that the military should not discriminate against gay service people. Also, it may be that he was bound to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, whose denial of equal federal benefits to same-sex partners he once called abhorrent. It's the law, but his administration did not need to defend it by citing the refuge of homophobes — that allowing same-sex marriage would be a legal invitation to incest, or worse. It did not need to minimize the importance of landmark court decisions on gay rights.

Obama also has a long record of positive remarks about gun control legislation, such as limits on assault weapons. But, again, he says he will not act.

On the other hand, Obama has waded into an issue that, if anything, might be more incendiary than guns or gays. That would be God, in His or Her various contexts. Obama has reached out to Muslims and noted that the U.S. numbers millions among its citizens. He's rebuked those who hold to the falsehood that the U.S. is a Christian nation. These Obama acts have been powerful fuel for the Right Wing Reverb Machine, which already needed only the president's skin color and middle name to stoke its fury.

So I can't accuse Obama of a lack of grit. What I won't accept is the argument that larger issues are too pressing for Obama to divert his attention to so-called small stuff. He's a brilliant man who juggled constitutional law, torts and civil procedure in law school. He undoubtedly balanced math, science, languages and the humanities in college. He has a huge and capable staff.

He can walk and chew on more than one issue at a time. Human rights — of women, gays, detainees, religious minorities — are not small things. To borrow from his own words, if all aren't equal, none are.

 

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